If the Wallabies were in a mess mentally last season, then surely now’s the time to head to Eden Park with a bit of swagger, ready to make the most of the Perth pasting.
Australia’s victory over the All Blacks last Saturday was certainly against the odds, but it was the manner in which they overpowered the Kiwis that was most stunning.
Of course Scott Barrett’s red card just before half time was a huge factor in the Wallabies’ 47-26 triumph, however Australia’s direct attack and ball retention – they held possession for more than 70 per cent of the first half – showed much more poise and precision than most thought they were capable of against the world’s top team.
Wallabies players were elated at full time, producing just their eighth win in 46 Tests against New Zealand since the 2003 World Cup and their best victory over the All Blacks in over a decade.
Aussie rugby fans were rightfully buzzing, too. It was a triumph that was hard-earned, as they all are against the Kiwis. It was one full of pride and application. It was one that filled many dispirited Wallabies fans with hope that World Cup success isn’t fanciful.
The Wallabies’ scrum and lineout were efficient. They banged away at the All Blacks’ defence, persisting mostly in close with just one or two passes off the ruck. They got whacked plenty of times, but rarely lost patience. Remarkably, the Wallabies – who had been bullied by the All Blacks for so many recent Tests – believed they could wear them down.
Remarkably, it worked.
Samu Kerevi’s leg-pumping runs were pivotal, proving his midfield toughness is crucial to the Wallabies at the World Cup. His momentum-shifting bursts were also cause for a touch of regret given his departure to Japan’s Top League at the end of the year.
There were some classy touches amongst the Wallabies’ six tries, but Kurtley Beale’s direct and perfectly timed final try in which he burst onto the ball from quick ruck recycling probably best summed up Australia’s proficiency.
Plus, it was a victory achieved without David Pocock and Israel Folau.
So can the Wallabies back it up at Eden Park in Auckland, where they haven’t won since 1986?
Australia’s mindset should be a far cry from ten months ago after they had won just two out of six Rugby Championship matches. At the end of a deflating few months for the Wallabies, which included a loss to Argentina on the Gold Coast and two heavy losses to New Zealand, Michael Cheika conceded that social media sledging was having a detrimental effect on his squad.
The Wallabies were struggling to cope with criticism, according to Cheika, and that was holding them back on the field.
“I’m not really up on social media or media, I don’t really read a lot of it, but players do, you know, they read all that stuff,” Cheika told the Fox Rugby Podcast last October following a 45-34 win over Argentina, thanks to an epic second-half comeback.
“It gets in their head and it hasn’t been going great and so they don’t think they’re great and then as soon as something happens in the game, negative, which it did early on, you start to get a bit narrow in your view and you start to fear failing – as opposed to going out there to do what you need to do to perform. And then as a consequence, win.”
So given the tables have turned and the Wallabies have justifiably been lauded for their performance in Perth last weekend, will they translate that into an equally aggressive and relentless mindset tomorrow night?
If negativity was in their heads after a tough trot, it can work in the other direction, right? They should be able to thrive with a confidence and freedom – a bit of swagger – generated from such a compelling win in Perth.
It’s as intimidating a task as there is in world rugby, going to Eden Park to take on the All Blacks. South Africa’s win last year and draw last month both came in Wellington.
When was the last time the All Blacks lost two Tests in a row? It was leading into the 2011 World Cup when the Sir Graham Henry-coached All Blacks were beaten by the Boks in Port Elizabeth and Wallabies in Brisbane. If they lose on Saturday, the All Blacks will also lose their No.1 ranking and may slide a fair way depending on the result of the England-Wales clash.
The All Blacks will hit back hard. However, they have some psychological frailties that have the potential to hold them back.
Steve Hansen is sticking with Richie Mo’unga at five-eighth and Beauden Barrett at fullback, which hasn’t impressed everyone. Wingers Rieko Ioane and Ben Smith, who is said to be still struggling with a hamstring injury, have made way for Sevu Reece and George Bridge.
Sonny Bill Williams, who hasn’t played much top-level rugby in the last few months, is back at No.12. Nepo Laulala comes in for Owen Franks at tighthead prop, while Patrick Tuipulotu will start at lock in place of the suspended Scott Barrett.
The Wallabies are more settled, having only made the one change to their starting side with lock Adam Coleman coming in for the injured Rory Arnold. Once again, Pocock won’t play as he’s not fully fit from his calf injury.
Possession is crucial. New Zealand scored four tries with about 30 per cent of the ball, while Australia bagged six tries from about 70 per cent possession. The All Blacks were pretty effective in attack given they were starved of the ball and were a man down in the second stanza.
It will be intriguing to watch how the Wallabies perform on the back of a physically dominant and disciplined display in Perth. The blueprint is in to disrupt the All Blacks and get them flustered.
The question was asked after last week whether the Wallabies would’ve had the firepower to finish the job against 15 men, and they can prove they were in control by flexing their muscle in Auckland.
If they can get the job done with a swagger, they can arrive in Japan next month with a helluva strut.